Husky Hoops - Five Keys

This season, the University of Washington Mens Basketball team has a chance to do something no team in the Lorenzo Romar era at UW has managed to do – get beyond the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament. But before they do that, they'll have to answer some key questions. Here are five of them.

1) Is there enough team chemistry/leadership?

NCAA basketball history is littered with talented teams that failed to live up to their vast potential, derailed by poor attitudes and selfish play. Despite the presence of Lorenzo Romar, truly one of the great personnel managers in the game, the Huskies are still vulnerable to this particular concern. With so many talented athletes, there simply isn't enough minutes to keep everyone happy. How the team responds to that reality will be crucial. There are also several big personalities on this team vying for future professional contracts. The temptation for individual interest superseding team goals is something every player at an elite program faces at one time or another; the decision between taking a contested shot instead of making the smart play for the greater good, is one example.

Common sense says the exposure gained from a deep NCAA Tournament run is far more valuable than a couple of extra notches in the stat sheet. For a team to be truly elite requires personal sacrifice from its players, and they must prove they are capable of rising to the challenge. Last season there was a disconnect between captain Quincy Pondexter and the rest of the roster. They got along well enough, but still lacked unity on and off the floor.

The current group of UW players seems more attuned to each other, but they need consistent leadership. Some players become leaders out of necessity, ala Pondexter. Others lead because they were born to lead. Which category the Husky captains - Isaiah Thomas and Justin Holiday - fall into, remains to be seen.
2) Is there an answer at power forward?

The four position has been a challenge for the Huskies since coach Romar first came to Washington. While the Huskies have showcased some significant talents in the post – Jon Brockman, Spencer Hawes and Jamaal Williams come to mind, they've never had a collection of athletes down low like they will this year. Romar has long coveted a front court with size that can rebound, defend, block shots and contribute in transition the way this group should.

Much of Washington's pre-season optimism has to do with the sheer size, athleticism and raw potential of the front court. That isn't to say that the Huskies are blessed with dominating scorers and surefire future NBA lottery picks under the hoop. They aren't. But what they do have are four versatile bodies with potential to dominate the post on defense. What the Huskies do not have is a obvious starter at the power forward position.

A front court tandem of Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Aziz N'Daiye is appealing because of their size, but it isn't likely to be the answer early in the season. While N'Diaye will be an important contributor out of the gates, he's still learning, and Bryan-Amaning is unproven in the power forward role. Floor spacing can be tricky when paring bigs like MBA and N'Daiye. There's a danger of clogging the lane, which limits the effectiveness of players like Thomas, Venoy Overton and Abdul Gaddy.

Justin Holiday is an easy solution, but not necessarily the best one. For all the things Holiday does well, he's not going to gain 25 pounds and grow two inches in the next week. He's physically ill-equipped to defend bigger, more traditional power forwards they'll inevitably face in the post-season. Romar uses small ball effectively, and he won't hesitate to do it when match-ups dictate it this season, but it isn't ideal.

That leaves Darnell Gant as the favorite to earn the starting nod. However, to make the most of the position, they'll need more than serviceable contributions and an occasional three-pointer if they hope to take the desired leap forward. Like what Mark Madsen gave to Stanford when he played in the Pac-10, they need a Mad Dog, an assertive presence willing to get dirty under the basket and physically create opportunities in the paint.

Gant has always been more of a shooting forward, and that isn't really what the team needs from the four position. But if not Gant, than whom? The answer may surprise you, but Desmond Simmons has quietly been turning heads in pre-season workouts. He's a relentless worker, with a host of skills that appear to be D1 ready and his tenaciousness under the basket may be exactly what the doctor ordered.
3) Is there enough roster "pop"?

There's no denying that Washington's upperclassmen are the reason they're the undisputed favorites to win the Pac-10 crown. That said, it's the unproven roster potential that has the capability to make this team special. Though it's highly unlikely that the entire rotation will all have breakout seasons, there are several candidates who will get their chance to shine.

CJ Wilcox seems the likeliest of the Huskies' talented young wings to emerge as a big-time player. While his deadly jumper will earn him a ticket into the rotation, it's the rest of his well-rounded game that make him a viable candidate to earn a starting nod. He's sure-handed and a smart defender possessing a high basketball IQ. While he's never stepped foot in a college basketball game, nobody around the program doubts he'll be a significant contributor immediately.

While the furthest behind in the learning curve, Terrence Ross has the highest upside of anyone on the roster, and has really started to carve out a role for himself. While his scoring prowess has never been questioned, it's his knack for rebounding that has surprised his coaches and teammates. As is the case with most freshmen, he's learning to take better care of the basketball. It takes time, especially when you've got elite defenders like Justin Holiday breathing down your neck in practice, but Ross should be a major factor later in the season.

Abdul Gaddy had the benefit of learning on the job last season rather than observing from the sidelines. Reports indicate he's playing more confidently this off-season and he has improved his quickness, but gradual improvement seems more likely than a sudden breakout from the 18-year old sophomore. Just like last year, he's the odds-on favorite to earn the starting nod opposite Thomas. Whether he can hold onto the job is the bigger question, and that answer is far from determined.

Aziz N'Daiye and Desmond Simmons are in a different category. As the workhorses of the program, their potential is less statistical and more intangible in nature. They are the Clydesdales of the team. Their success won't be measured by a box score, but by the opportunities they generate for their teammates, and in that regard both possess considerable "pop" potential. Call it the 'Holiday Effect'. Both players are relentless workers who will earn playing time based on their defensive success, creating second chance opportunities, deflections and shot alterations.

Program veterans Darnell Gant and junior Scott Suggs will be given plenty of early opportunities to shine with the Maui Classic looming just three weeks away. Both players are exceptional athletes, possessing a high degree of skill, but neither has demonstrated that they are ready to be big contributors on a consistent basis.

Washington needs at least a couple of guys to step up and contribute at a consistently high level for them to put their stamp on the 2010-2011 college basketball season.
4) Can they dominate the game defensively?

Much of the Huskies' success during the first few seasons under coach Romar was a direct result of a suffocating defensive identity. Those early teams, with Brandon Roy, Nate Robinson, Will Conroy and Bobby Jones patrolling the perimeter, were fierce defensive units with a palpable sense of what made them special, and they took great pride in their defensive principles. This year's team possesses that kind of potential, and then some, but they've got to adopt it wholesale.

Never has Washington boasted the defensive front court personnel they possess this season, and they can be a truly dominant defensive team should they adopt the same identity the great Romar teams possessed. Defensively, they're built similarly to the Washington State teams of the mid-decade, with Justin Holiday playing the role of the excellent Kyle Weaver. N'Daiye's presence should free up Holiday to play more of a free safety role, jumping passing lanes and creating chaos while Overton pressures coast-to-coast. As effective as those Dick and Tony Bennett teams were in the Palouse, the Huskies are deeper, longer and more athletic than their cross-state rivals ever were.
5) Can they avoid injuries in the front court?

When the Huskies hit the floor next weekend for their exhibition game against St. Martins, they'll enter the season possessing a luxury they've never had before – a talented, NBA-size front court. 6-foot-9 Mathew Bryan-Amaning, seven footer Aziz N'Daiye, 6-foot-8 Darnell Gant and 6-foot-7 Desmond Simmons bring a level of physicality to UW's front court Romar has never had. The downside to their physical play however, is the potential for injury. With the sudden retirement of Tyreese Breshers, the Huskies front court is short on numbers. For Washington to make the most of this season their front court is going to have to stay healthy. If Bryan-Amaning or N'Daiye are sidelined for a large stretch of time all bets are off, and they'll on go as far as small ball can take them.
As a bonus, here's one more - Can they avoid another slow start?

Last season's dismal first half was an eye opener for just about everyone who followed the Washington Huskies. Despite a wealth of talent, the team was overconfident, too comfortable and complacent. This year, with the Maui Classic looming just three games into the season, the Huskies don't have the luxury of throwing up non-conference clunkers. High pre-season rankings is enough to put them on the national radar, but a poor start to the season will simply affirm what every national pundit believes – the Pac-10 sucks. They'll drop off the map quicker than a fifteenth century explorer, and no matter how much they dominate conference play, they'll spend the rest of the season clawing their way back into national relevance.

This season more than ever, the Huskies must come out of the gate not just strong, but dominant. The Maui Classic provides them the platform to infinitely elevate their national profile. In fact, a pre-season tournament championship is a sure-fire way to propel them into the top-10, if not the top-5. The UW coaching staff knows this. They are working this team harder than ever, and practices have been grueling. But that's what it takes to be a champion. Top Stories